Christmas ham and Ragnarok

According to the news, the price of Christmas ham will probably go up by another seven per cent next week. The announcement was made by the president of the supermarket association who did not clarify whether the organization was imposing the price increase arbitrarily to mercilessly jack up its members’ profits or whether it is the result of the law of supply and demand. smoked-ham1The law of supply and demand says that the higher the demand and the lower the supply, the higher the prices. But it doesn’t look like there is any shortage of Christmas ham. Just go to the supermarkets – the shelves are filled to the brim. And I am quite sure that, like last year, excess inventory of Christmas ham will be sold at bargain prices after the holidays. Less profit is still better than no profit, after all. But what happens to those that are nearing their expiration dates? There is this interesting story about how hotdogs are always tastier after the holidays because they are made with unsold ham. True or not? Search me. Told you it’s a story.

Not that the rising price of ham is a personal concern. I consciously refrain from buying traditional Christmas food items precisely because it makes me feel like a victim of swift and incisive robbery. But for those who feel that no Noche Buena meal can be complete without the Christmas ham, I wonder… do you even know how ham first figured on the Christmas Eve meal? It has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, I tell you. It may, however, have everything to do with paganism.

Don’t faint. I’ll explain as best as I can.

Today’s youngster’s know Ragnarok as a highly addictive multi-player role playing online game that originated from the South Korean manhwa (comics; cartoons) by Lee Myung-jin. Ragnarok, however, predates online gaming by many, many centuries. In Norse mythology, Ragnarok refers to a series of events, including a prophecy and the concurrence of natural disasters, that led to global inundation.

And just what has that to do with the Christmas ham? Patience, patience… I’ll get to that.

One of the Norse gods that figures prominently in the Ragnarok is Freyr, twin brother of the beautiful Freyja. Freyr was associated with farming, harvest and boars. Serving a boar’s head with an apple in it mouth on a gold or silver platter during the midwinter festival, the Scandinavian Jul, was a traditional offering to invoke the good graces of Freyr all throughout the coming year. Interestingly, the boar offering is uncannily similar to the way we serve a whole lechon, another dish associated with festivities.

Jul is the Scandinavian term for Yule. If you’re wondering where the term Yule season and Yule log and Yule singing came from, well, it comes from that pagan midwinter festival called Jul.

If you’re familiar with the history of Christianity, or at least one version of it, you would know that to convert people from paganism to Christianity, the Christian church authorities found it convenient, and best, to successfully assimilate the old pagan customs with new Christian traditions. For instance, let’s be reminded that the singing of Christmas carols was not originally part of Christian traditions as they were frowned upon as a segment of pagan festivities. In fact, hymns in church service were forbidden until in 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi introduced Nativity hymns during Christmas Midnight Mass and the practice caught on. xmaschinesehamIn her book “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe”, Dr. Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, English antiquarian and academic, says that by the 12th century, Christianity was well-entrenched in Europe although many pagan legends and practices survived. Christmas on December 25 and the midwinter festivities, well, it isn’t hard to imagine how the practice of serving ham transcended the assimilation of practices.

In “The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint,” Pamela Berger goes farther by saying that Saint Stephen may have inherited the Christmas ham tradition from the old Norse pagan practices. As an aside, Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church, was stoned to death after having been found guilty of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) and Saint Paul figures prominently in his stoning. Paul, a Jew prior to his conversion to Christianity, watched the stoning with approval as written in Acts 22:20.

Saint’s Stephen’s day is December 26 (December 27 in Eastern Christianity). In Western Christian art, he is often depicted being stones by a crowd or as a young man carrying three stones and a palm. In old Swedish art, however, he is said to have been depicted bearing a boar’s head to a Yule banquet. I don’t think I need to spell it out but, just to be clear, Scandinavia, a term coined in the 1800s to designate countries with common Nordic linguistic and literary origins, refers to a region in northern Europe and is comprised principally of Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Finland and Iceland are sometimes included).

So, if anyone accuses you of paganism for serving ham with the Noche Buena meal, don’t take offense. It just might be true.


  1. says

    So, looking at the Philippines’ own experience with Christianity and looking at our own Filipino religiosity, could we say we’ve been really Christianized or should we say that Christianity was Filipinized.? ;)

    • says

      Re “Christianity was Filipinized”

      You know I can extend that. Filipinos were Americanized so the Filipinization of Christianity carries some Western influence.

      I’m thinking now that Christmas in the Philippines is so much like Christmas in America — too commercialized and too materialistic.

      • A says

        Well, the high price of ham doesn’t bother me–we always receive hams (yes, plural! hahahaha) as Xmas gifts. But you’re absolutely right: there is NO reason for the Xmas dinner being limited to ham and other “traditional” fare. And shortage of supply? Blah! You’re right on that one too: there’s always excess ham in grocery shelves. Marketing, really.

        But one thing I hate during this season more than overpriced items: people posing as charity cases, and panhandling bums. Have you had an experience, as I had just today, of someone approaching you with an envelope, asking for charity money? I asked girl who approached me for details about her “charity,” (such as address, history, the actual “organization” that handles it, etc) and all she could tell me was “Sir, magbigay na lang kayo, Pasko naman eh!” The nerve! My family works hard for its money, and I’m sorry if we just want to make sure that we give to REAL charities, not made-up ones. IF her charity was real, she should know how to approach people better. (I’m telling you this because this group has gone around in our subdivision in Antipolo, where I live. You might encounter them in yours, too).

        Anyway… may you and yours stay happy and safe! :-)

        • says

          These “charity” cases (including those asking for donations for supposed burials) were common in our old neighborhood (another part of Antipolo). They even have letters purportedly signed by the barangay captain. I never gave. Fortunately, we don’t see them in our new neighborhood. Probably because I complain to the guard when they are allowed inside the gates.

          What I hate even more are those going around asking for donations for basketball uniforms for some league or another. Sus. As though uniforms are essential. Pang-arte lang, ipangmo-molestiya pa ng ibang tao.

          I just heard that even couriers (those delivering credit card bills) are asking for their pamasko. Unbelievable.

  2. says

    Aren’t most “Christian” holidays pagan in origin? I read in old reliable The Da Vinci Code (whose underlying concepts are actually consistent with many, shall we call them, “scholarly” works) that Christmas itself was originally an old Egyptian holdiay commemorating their sun god.

    This was a strategy used widely in Europe by early missionaries. It was a kind of a “change management” approach where the new regime of Christianity was eased into the culture by building upon and “Christianising” existing traditions.

    A lot of those pagan legacies remain. Just look at the days of the week and what they are named after (I think none of them are Christian in origin).

  3. lee says

    When i was in high school, I read a book written by a priest which pointed out in detail how each Roman Catholic (i need to be specific here) tradition, symbol, ritual, etc was lifted from a particular paganistic tradition, symbol, ritual, etc – including the worship of a goddess (with diff personalities) and her son. When a roman emperor got converted to Christianity, nagkaron ng reverse persecution. Yung mga non-Christians naman ang pinersecute. E nagkagulo. Years later, another emperor-convert had a better idea. To make Christianity more palatable to the pagans, he combined the two and voila.

    What I read in the book was later confirmed in college by my history prof in – of all universities – the Royal Pontifical University.

  4. chris says

    The posts on charity, barangay captains, and tradition (girls not commuting alone) reminds me of the movie “Grandpa is Dead” directed by Soxie H. Topacio. This was the Philippine entry in our city’s international film festival. The movie was off-putting at first (loud wailing women) but the director was trying to say something about tradition and culture. My understanding is that in Filipino culture you look to your neighbors for charity and the barangay captain oversees the welfare system in their area. I liked how the transvestite brother was considered “disgraceful” when his siblings had their own hidden disgraceful behaviours like adultery. The “disgraceful” brother also has the nerve to question all the traditions they had to go through to honor the dead.